Pat Magee & Jo Berry: Listening to Your Enemies Means Asking Hard Questions

“The Christian gospel allows people to change.”

With those words, spoken this morning on BBC Radio Ulster’s Talkback, Rev Gary Mason, pastor at East Belfast Mission (EBM), expressed the hope that has kept him ministering throughout the years of the Troubles.

Mason was on air today because EBM’s Skainos centre had been daubed with sectarian graffiti, described on the BBC website as “anti-republican.” The incident, which is being investigated as a hate crime, was linked to tonight’s 4 Corners Festival event at 7.30 pm at Skainos, “Listening to your Enemies.” The event features Brighton bomber Pat Magee and Jo Berry, whose father Sir Anthony Berry MP was killed in the bomb.

Berry and Magee’s shared story is relatively well-known. The two have a relationship spanning more than a decade and work together in the charity Berry founded, “Building Bridges for Peace.”

There are many critics who dismiss the conflict transformation work of former combatants as cynical and self-serving. Those critics are also sceptical that those who carried out such acts of violence can ever really change. As one caller bluntly put it:

“[Pat Magee] won’t change.”

It’s important to recognise that many of those critics have themselves suffered because of violence. So a reluctance to “listen to your enemy” is understandable. As Jo Berry says on the “Forgiveness Project” website:

“An inner shift is required to hear the story of the enemy. For me the question is always about whether I can let go of my need to blame, and open my heart enough to hear Pat’s story and understand his motivations. The truth is that sometimes I can and sometimes I can’t. It’s a journey and it’s a choice, which means it’s not all sorted and put away in a box.”

Rev Mason did not justify Magee’s actions. But his reminder that the Christian gospel can serve as a source for personal transformation, as well as wider social change, reflects the lessons that he has learned over many years.

Rev Mason and Rev Lesley Carroll from Fitzwilliam and Macrory Presbyterian Church, who is chairing tonight’s event, brought listeners back to Berry’s language of “a journey.”

The language of journey is helpful in understanding conflict transformation because it recognises that people may change at different paces and take different directions – but contrary to what the caller said – people never stay in the same place.

It is also often assumed that former combatants become involved in conflict transformation work because they seek forgiveness or an emotional relief from guilt. But this also is not always the case. Both Rev Mason and Rev Carroll referenced hearing Magee say that he has not forgiven himself. This is how Magee put it on the “Forgiveness Project” website:

“Some day I may be able to forgive myself. Although I still stand by my actions, I will always carry the burden that I harmed other human beings. But I’m not seeking forgiveness. If Jo could just understand why someone like me could get involved in the armed struggle then something has been achieved.”

The aims of the 4 Corners Festival include encouraging people to “cross boundaries.” That means visiting areas of Belfast they would not normally visit, meeting people they would not normally meet, and listening to stories they would not normally hear.

At an event on Monday night, “Is Christ Divided?” four church leaders shared their personal stories and reflections on division. But as the chair, Prof John Brewer from Queen’s, said:

“It’s not the people in this room who are the problem. It’s not these four leaders who are the problem. How do we get beyond these nice stories to the harder questions?”

It seems that the Berry-Magee event has stirred up some of those “harder questions”: questions about forgiveness, who has a right to speak, and who has a right to be listened to. But we should be well aware by now that there will be no easy answers. As Berry has said:

“In those early years I probably used the word ‘forgiveness’ too liberally – I didn’t really understand it. When I used the word on television, I was shocked to receive a death threat from a man who said I had betrayed both my father and my country.

Now I don’t talk about forgiveness. To say “I forgive you” is almost condescending – it locks you into an ‘us and them’ scenario keeping me right and you wrong. That attitude won’t change anything. But I can experience empathy, and in that moment there is no judgement. Sometimes when I’ve met with Pat, I’ve had such a clear understanding of his life that there’s nothing to forgive.”

Gladys is a Research Fellow in the Senator George J Mitchell Institute for Global Peace, Security and Justice at Queen’s University Belfast. She also blogs on religion and politics at www.gladysganiel.com